The 1976-77 National Basketball Association season showed that Bill Walton is the game's best team player and that Julius Erving is its best individual player.

And it showed that Darryl Dawkins is a comer.

Dawkins is a man-child who needs to grow up a bit.

At 6-foot-11 1/2, 266 pounds and still climbing, the 20-year-old Philadelphia center is already one of the most colorful and talked about characters in the NBA.

"By the time he's 22, he'll be one of the most dominant players in basketball," says 76er assistant coach Jack McMahon. "He needs somebody to have confidence in him and give him a chance to play. He has a great natural talent in all phases of the game."

Dawkins is one of only three player sin the NBA since Reggie Harding, former Detroit Piston 7-footer, to have skipped college, going directly from high school into pro ball.

Moses Malone of the Houston Rockets and Bill Willoughby of the Atlanta Hawks are the other two.

Willoughby may have made a mistake. Malone and Dawkins apparently didn't.

Malone was an average student at Petersburg (Va.) High School. He is shy and keeps to himself. He follows coach Tom Nissalke's orders and doesn't complain.

Dawkins is different. He is overflowing with personality and is independent. He loves the limelight, the roar of the crowd and the excitement of being a basketball star.

"Me, I'm Big Dawk, here to talk. I'll be your friend when you're grinning. I love to rap and cap for awhile. Footloose and fancy free, and as bad as I want to be. I love fast cars, cool summer breezes, love when I want to and quit when I pleases," he says.

Unfortunately for Dawkins, to some he has a gorilla image, the guy who accidentally punched teammate Doug Collins while trying to hit Portland's Bob Gross in the second game of the championship series.

Dawkins later tried to destroy the 76er locker room because he said his teammates allowed Maurice Lucas to land a sneak punch. And he later damaged his team's dressing room in Portland when he became angry at coach Gene Shue for not playing him more.

There is another Dawkins, however. His tantrums in the finals shouldn't be attributed solely to the fact that he didn't attend college.

"I have an 11-year-old son and if he can go right into pro ball I'll tell him to do it," said Franklin Johnson, one of Dawkins' counselors at Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, Fla. "College isn't the only key to happiness anymore.

"Darryl was an average student and could have gone to college if he wanted to, but why?" Johnson asked.

Some sociologists argue that problems can arise for young men like Dawkins, Malone and Willoughby.

"They are high school men with college men," says Doug Snyder, an assistant professor of sociology at Bowie State. "It cuts short their adolescence. It is what is called discontinuous socialization.

"The player's self concept tends to be 100 per cent as an athlete because he has nothing else. He has no mobility. He could turn out rich, but directionless."

On the positive side, Snyder points out that a star of Dawkins' magnitude avoided all of the chicanery involved with college recruiting.

Dawkins' best friend among the 76ers is guard Lloyd Free. Free, from Guilford College, left school a year early.

"I think he's overall an intelligent person," Free said.

"I simply saw nothing to gain by my going to college," Dawkins said. "Why waste my time. If I'm wrong. I can always go back."

Before the playoffs, Shue said, "He's a young player. He's going to stay on the bench for now."

However, Dawkins had much playing time in the series against Boston and a fair amount against Houston and in the first two games of the Portland series.

The fight in game two soured Shue on him and Dawkins was used less thereafter.

"I'm not going to be anybody's parent," Shue said. "Darryl is young and he'll make it without that. He has a tremendous amount of talent and ability."

Shue once told Dawkins not to worry. "You'll grow up."

Dawkins' reaction: "I don't need him as a parent."

Away from the game, Dawkins is soft spoken, warm hearted and generous. He loves to sing to himself and and to others.

One of his first actions after signing his contract was to buy his mother a new home and car.

His two brothers often stay with Dawkins during the season. He travels with an entourage of about 12 people.

His compatriots dress like he does - fancy suits and wide-brimmed hats, and his whole scene has been nicknamed the "black mafia."

While in high school, a garage owner gave him a job (moving tires) when Dawkins needed one. Last summer he returned to the job and worked for a month to help out his friend.

Dawkins can also act like the child he is at times. He has what he calls his "gorilla dunk," not thinking of the repercussions of such a remark.

Three weeks ago a Philadelphia television sportscaster opened his show with some scenes from the movie King Kong and followed that with footage of Dawkins, comparing him to Kong.

Dawkins was perplexed.

"I know I'm no gorilla. I believe in the Bible. Man was created out of dust. I'm not descended from no ape."

An anxious moment for Dawkins occurred in the third game of the Houston series. Free and Houston's Mike Newlin collided and Free lay motionless on the floor.

Dawkins ran onto the court and picked up Free in his arms, cradling him like a baby.

"He's out of this game," Dawkins said and carried his friend to the dressing room. Free was later hospitalized with a fractured rib and a partially collapsed lung.

Dawkins stayed up with Free all night.

"I thought my best friend was going to die," Dawkins said. "He might have woken up and needed me. I wanted to be there."

Dawkins will be there and in the NBA for years to come, even without a college degree.